Let’s Talk About Death, Baby

By Tom Scarcella

Grim-ReaperAugust 17th is a date I won’t soon forget. Besides the (wholly unrelated) fact that my first girlfriend’s AIM screen name marked her birthday with “81793,” it was also the date that began the most transformative and grueling experience of my college career. It wasn’t an internship, or a relationship, or any of the usual things we might associate with life as a student. It was the beginning of a yearlong existential crisis. I was 19 years old, aimless, and plagued with uncertainties about the universe; yet, I came out of it stronger and more grounded than ever before. I learned a whole lot in college and other socially driven endeavors, but it was all cast into a crucial perspective by my dark, personal struggle with the big questions of life — namely, about death.

My quarter-life crisis began in the late summer of 2012, right before my sophomore year at Wagner College. Earlier that summer, I felt on top of the world. I had done well my freshman year. I finally learned to drive. I did indeed have the internship and the relationship. I spent the summer basking in these little milestones, which seemed major at the time. And although my major itself was still undeclared, I had a strong feeling that all was right with the world and that I was on the path I should be on.

And that’s when August 17th came.

I’ll spare the specifics about my philosophies from then and now, but suffice it to say that on that night, my entire worldview began to crumble beneath my feet, my comfortable assurance along with it. There wasn’t anything special about that day, at first. It all started because I had gone a little too far getting hammered with some friends, which was not an uncommon occurrence. I staggered home to face a lonely night of room-spinning, life-questioning, “never-gonna-drink-again” drunken suffering. Somehow this one made me feel especially guilty; it was one of those mistakes that sternly reminds you of all your other mistakes, all at once. At some point while the stupor waned, I made the fateful decision to read Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, which had been sitting neglected by my bedside all summer, in one sitting…

Something about the inebriation coupled with the timeless Buddhistic bildungsroman created a perfect spiritual storm; right after I closed the book, I could not stop thinking about death and the afterlife, the universe and my place in it. Like Siddhartha, I felt myself feeling profoundly out of place in the world. I thought I could rationalize and sleep these feelings away, but when I woke the next morning, I felt strangely unsettled. I couldn’t eat breakfast. I couldn’t shake those thoughts. I couldn’t eat my next meal either, and my stomach was burning with the fires of a punitive hell, which I was beginning to realize I still feared. As the weeks and months melted away, the existential concerns in my mind multiplied, intensified; relaxation became impossible and near-ceaseless existential dread became the order of the day. I still cherished family, friends, and school, but I was haunted by the apparent meaninglessness of it all. I had many questions, but Death sat at the center throne, because almost everything revolved around my insatiable pondering about just what happens…and what that meant for my life now. I managed to do well enough in classes, but my motivation to succeed was disintegrating: what the hell is the point of trying if all of life is one big unsatisfactory illusion?

Let me stop there for a moment. I know my experience is not terribly unique. We’ve all had our doubts spurred, our faiths shaken, and our minds overrun with life’s big questions. However, I think that young people — namely, college students and recent grads and other quasi-adults — are not active-enough participants in this conversation. The midlife crisis is a common trope, but what of the 20-something who is terrified at the prospect of making mistakes rather than having already made them? Despite our relative youth, I believe we are uniquely situated to become overwhelmed by existential concerns. For many of us, our lifelong values and assumptions have been at least shaken, if not shattered, by the subversive potency of our college courses. This ideological destabilizing can leave one questioning their religious, philosophical, and social worldviews, often left with more questions than answers. Moreover, many of us are on the verge of supporting ourselves and really leaving the nest, and so survival is becoming a tangible responsibility rather than a passive expectation. Is a premature death not the tacit primary thing to avoid as we become adults? Is that primal fear — which we suppress each day with the pursuits and pleasures of modern life, especially as “invincible” young people — not growling quietly beneath the surface? The ever-present specter of death will haunt anybody in any age group, but I think the supposed golden years of college and post-college life are more existentially fragile times than we often realize.

But perhaps it’s just not a convenient time to worry about dying, because we’ve got so much on our plates as it is. We are well aware that the decisions we make now are key in shaping the lives we desire, so adding “WHAT HAPPENS WHEN I DIE OMG?!” to “Where should I apply to grad school?” may seem too daunting. If you’re not a philosophy major (and may God/Nothing bless you if you are, for choosing to tackle these issues in such a disciplined way), then maybe thinking too much about this stuff can just be dangerous and ultimately, gasp, unproductive.

To that, I’d say it has great potential to be just the opposite. Going back to my own cool story: although I went through a horrible period of existential anxiety in which I often questioned the merits of the orthodox path, I eventually returned to that path with much greater clarity. First, I needed time to figure out what I really believed and what my true values were. The process was painful, but in retrospect I can see that it purged me of many insecurities and forced me to sharpen my whole belief system. I learned to be comfortable with not knowing certain things, and so they did not continue to boil in the background of my daily life. In this way, I learned to be honest with myself about my feelings, which is invaluable for overall mental health. I learned the importance of not neglecting myself, even as I run the rat race and must prioritize countless other things as well. And in fact, my existential anguish actually helped me develop a host of practical skills. I spent untold time reading and researching different religions and schools of philosophical thought, which allowed me to hone my ability to detect the validity of different sources, trace the conversations about difficult and broad questions, and compare information across different spectrums of knowledge. Plus, questioning my own beliefs and parsing out the differences between fact, opinion, and faith helped my argumentative skills tremendously; I can now articulate what I believe and why I believe it, which is a critical and transferable skill.

Eventually, it all turned out OK. I entered my sophomore year undeclared, because I had a dilettante’s interests in philosophy, psychology, religious studies and more — I had no idea what I really wanted to pursue, because I did not know what I really believed in. But by the time I finished my sophomore year and the crisis subsided, my abstract concerns about death and the universe quieted, and my interests turned to the palpable issues of the social world, and the practical concerns of writing and editing. Thus, I settled on an English major with a minor in journalism (this was as late as my school would allow me, but it worked).

Simply put, the existential crisis totally sucked, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It helped me figure out what I believe in and what I want to do in life, and showed me — in a visceral way that I really had to experience –just how important death is for living life. Although it’s quite possible to become a little too obsessed, as there are no certain answers, it is an inevitability that we all must face, and it’s well worth confronting it within the contexts of our lives so we can live them in the best way possible. As Steve Jobs said in his famous Stanford speech, “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”

Now, it just so happens to be exactly three years after the start of the crisis that this blog post was due to be submitted. I’ll chalk this up to being a mere coincidence; but the difference between me as an anguished rising sophomore on August 17th, 2012, and my recent graduate self on the same day in 2015, is that I am OK with the tinge of uncertainty I have about it possibly not being a coincidence. I just don’t know, and I’m OK with that. Of course, I have much greater uncertainty about what will happen when I die, but I’m a lot cooler with that than I used to be. My fellow milennials and I have our whole lives ahead of us (God or Nothing willing), but since thinking about death is as certain as death itself, we may as well embrace it and put it to good use.

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